INTERVIEW: 'I'M IN PERFECT HEALTH'

It has been a subject of passionate interest for John Kerry throughout his Senate career. But the Democratic presidential front runner has not spoken publicly about his own brush with Agent Orange in Vietnam until now. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff by phone from the campaign trail. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How cognizant of [Agent Orange] were you at the time?

KERRY: When I was in my first missions in the south of Saigon in a place called the Rung Sat zone--God, the whole damn thing was probably just completely defoliated because that was the area where the ships were going into Saigon. And then there were just lots of individual areas in the peninsula that were defoliated. I really didn't think twice about it, to be honest with you. Not then I didn't. But then we got back here and we all became aware very quickly of this word Agent Orange and what it was and so forth.

I want to read a quote that Wade Sanders told us and get your thoughts. "Agent Orange exposure was just part of life for anyone who was in the delta. When John and I were in Coastal Division 13 I'd see him during multiple boat raids. We were both exposed to Agent Orange. We bathed in that water. The helicopters would fly overhead and douse us. We just thought it was a mosquito spray. They didn't really tell us much. No one ever told us it was highly toxic."

That's fair. I don't think I saw it as much as he did but I saw some of it and I know we were in the water--obviously we were in the water. That was just the nature of life in a boat down there. I've thought about it a lot in the context of the issue and I've thought about it a lot in the context of people who have worked with it and were right underneath major sprayings... That's why I worked so hard on this Agent Orange issue.

Do you remember helicopters coming and dousing the area in the delta when you were there?

My memory is of more of the troop operations with the choppers than the Agent Orange--but look, everybody's memory is personal and what it is. We were in that area for months patrolling four and five days at a time and in and out of defoliated areas all the time. It was pretty regular stuff but we didn't think about it that much. I don't think about it in a personal sense.

Why do you think that is?

That's the way I feel. I'm not going to sit around worrying about something. Some people are convinced that their particular cancer came from this. Others I think are skeptical whether they did or didn't or don't know whether they did or didn't. There's no way to prove conclusively, I don't think. It is my belief that my particular cancer was hereditary and part of my genes. It's gone now. I'm in perfect health and I'm not concerned about something. I feel blessed and very lucky and that's where I am. But I'm concerned for a lot of other guys who are concerned. There are an awful lot of vets running around with deformed babies and testicular cancer and other kinds of cancer who are very convinced that it came from that. My fight has always been to make sure that anybody got the fair presumption based on their service.

On the question of releasing all of your medical records...

I'd be happy to have my doctor release something. I just had a checkup about three weeks ago. My blood is perfect. My EKG was perfect. I have no issues except for a small rotator-cuff issue that's been bugging me for a while, but that's about it.

So you do intend to release all the records?

Well, I'm certainly going to release a summary. I've done that in my campaigns. My internist, my doctor, says that I'm at lower risk than most people at my age for everything you can think of because I have the heart of a marathon runner and the blood pressure of a marathon runner and I'm in great shape.

Any concern that you might be at higher risk for some of the other cancers for which there have been stronger associations with Agent Orange?

I do not have that concern. I do not live with it. I feel very confident and it's just a feeling I have. I can't explain it. But that's how I feel.